Last week I attended the first International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers. Within an hour of arriving I had learned that amongst countries of the OECD, England is in the bottom three for:
• Quality of life;
• Family life/support;
• Economic pressure.
Suffice to say that was not cheery as a backdrop to the matters at hand. Of more immediate relevance to PGRs, I learned that 1 in 2 PGRs experience mental health issues at some point during the course of their PhD. 1 in 4 PGRs experience symptoms of mental ill health that merit professional intervention, but only 1 in 3 of these actually seek help.
Regarding specific issues, the evidence is that:
• Writing blocks are directly related to poor mental health;
• Perfectionism is related to poor mental health.
I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. In UK Universities the task of doing a PhD is challenging in many ways, and it is not helped by an academic culture where suffering during the PhD is worn like a badge of honour. Worse still, too often this results in environments where individual PGRs feel that to not be seen as suffering is just not acceptable.
So, it is not surprising that the current emphasis on workplace Health & Wellbeing is truly reflected in the PhD environment. The main learning I actually took from last week’s conference is that whilst we may address the symptoms of poor wellbeing amongst PGRs, it is the system within which PGRs work that needs closest attention. It is the system that impacts its component parts, creating the environment that generates the symptoms of distress amongst the constituent population of PGRs.
However, attending to the health of the system may be a task for people further up the food chain. I will proceed to enhance my knowledge and understanding of Health & Wellbeing issues, whilst also developing some new interventions to enable PGRs to optimise their Health and Wellbeing. Watch this space?